The intensive care unit of Istanbul's memorial hospital looks like any modern hospital anywhere. But it definitely doesn't sound like one.
Dr. Bingur Sonmez introduces himself: "I am Professor Doctor Bingur Sonmez, I'm a cardiac surgeon, I've been doing cardiac surgery more than 30 years. What we are doing in intensive care, we are playing Sufi music to our patients to calm down, to make them feeling much better."
Sufism is a mystical strain of Islam whose traditional music is popular among Turks. Sonmez says that five centuries ago when Europeans were burning people alive for having mental illnesses, the Turkish Ottoman Empire had a more civilized approach.
"In this country, in Ottoman Empire times, we used to treat psychiatric patients with music in hospitals, in local hospitals," Sonmez says. "So what we are doing is the same."
So doctors here don't consider themselves doing anything new.
"If you look at the patient's face, you can see that he is very anxious. But after 10 minutes you will see that he is very much relaxed," says Sonmez.
After a short performance, anesthesiologist Erol Can says the patient's heart rate decreased 15 percent.
Can says the approach has scientific backing. He says the hospital conducted a study of 22 patients and measured their stress levels on a scale of one to 10. Their stress went down from an average of seven to three after a 20 minute musical performance.
"We recorded heart rate, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, respiratory rate and oxygen delivery, the oxygen saturation of the blood. Every parameter was better after this 20 minutes," Can says.
Sonmez and Can demonstrate the traditional medicinal properties of different melodic systems — or makams in Turkish music. Sonmez says certain makams can treat specific conditions.
"That makam makes you sleepy, it's a real meditation music," says Sonmez. "So its good to listen to when you go to bed. If you listen to this makam when you are waking up in the morning, you won't be able to get out of the bed."
The Mahur makam is the opposite of Sabah, so it might make you agitated and unable to sleep.
"If you play that makam to a depressed patient, you can cheer him up easily," says Sonmez.
There are makams that can help with other conditions as well. One supposedly increases your appetite. Another can help you lose weight. The music has significant health results, the doctors say. But while they sing the praises of music therapy, they stress it's a compliment – not a replacement – for conventional medicine.
Erol Can (left), an anesthesiologist, and Bingur Sonmez, a cardiac surgeon play for a patient. (Photo: Matthew Brunwasser)
Turkish doctors play Sufi music for patient. (Photo: Matthew Brunwasser)